Sasha Sagan talks to constitutional attorney ANDREW SEIDEL and professor of criminology DR. MEREDITH ROSSNER about an area of life that we don’t usually think of as being full of ritual. But it’s saturated with it—for better and worse.

Episode excerpt

Host SASHA SAGAN: The legal system is full of these rituals. There are costumes, there are magic words, there are things that feel so much a part of different traditions that you wouldn’t associate necessarily with just the clearest, most straightforward way of getting to the truth or getting to justice. Is it like a high priesthood that’s so into the nitty gritty about which little bylaws are being committed versus how to be kind and good?

Constitutional attorney ANDREW SEIDEL: There is an enormous focus on tradition, especially at our Supreme Court, that is, I think, deeply problematic in a number of different ways. There are all these traditions and trappings that build up this myth of the temple of justice with the nine Oracles dressed in their priestly garb handing down these dictates from on high. Yes, you know, I mean, they still give out feather quills to attorneys that argue every case.

SASHA: Do they??

ANDREW: Yeah, you get these white feather quills, you get a couple of them. And, you know, they’re prized possessions for attorneys who argue these cases, there’s this certain sort of Luddite unwillingness to email or to allow cameras into the courtroom. I mean, think of the building itself, right. Like, obviously, the Supreme Court itself, you know, it harkens back with its marble and its columns and statues to the very roots of law. And in all of this is meant to add permanency and permanency and legitimacy of history and tradition to the court. And it’s meant to build up that myth, but really, we are, in a way we’re seeing that that myth turned against us…The United States Supreme Court right now is abusing these myths and traditions and its reputation as a court of law. But I think we actually at this point, have to stop thinking of it as a court of law and more as a court that is bent on giving political whims the force of law, and on converting America into the Christian nation that it was never intended to be.

Professor of Criminology MEREDITH ROSSNER: I’ve done it a few times, walk up from cells to the courtroom. No grand columns there, no marble. It’s like you’re in a dingy cell, you go up a dingy staircase, and then all of a sudden you’re in a courtroom, things are happening. People are talking… and then you get brought back down. It’s a different kind of ritual, what some scholars have called “rituals of degradation.” It’s not just the language: The procedure, the dress, everything excludes you. It shows you’re not part of this professional class. It’s empowering for the people who can speak it, the lawyers and the judges, but profoundly disempowering for the people who don’t know the language, and that’s defendants and that’s witnesses, victims, and to a lesser extent, jurors.